Why hearing loss could be having a bigger impact than ever
According to the United Nations1, over 1.5 billion people globally now live with hearing loss and (according to recent estimates) this could rise to over 2.5 billion people by 2030.
Being able to communicate with others is crucial when it comes to forming healthy relationships and positive feelings, so it’s vital that alongside a diagnosis of hearing loss, practitioners consider the mental health impact this could have on patients.
What is the connection between hearing and mental health?
Communication is an essential part of being human. Our life experience and ability to build fulfilling relationships are based on free-flowing communication with others.
Losing our ability to hear and to interpret things clearly, interferes with our ability to relate to others and can make a person withdraw from the rest of the world. This imposed isolation puts people at a much greater risk of developing mental health disorders. In short, our ability to communicate is intrinsically linked to our mental wellbeing.
What effects can hearing loss have on our mental health?
Communication is defined as ‘the imparting or exchanging of information’. Hearing disabilities impact this exchange and the person with hearing loss might not be able to react or respond appropriately.
Inability to be fully involved in an exchange of communication could cause someone with hearing loss to feel embarrassed, angry, frustrated, or disappointed. Some may experience a level of paranoia and believe others are talking about them, behave in ways considered socially unacceptable or simply stop communicating completely.2
Children and adults who struggle to hear can sometimes feel mentally exhausted and this could lead them to start avoiding large groups and gatherings that take place in noisy settings. While this self-imposed removal feels easier at first, it could lead to them feeling lonely and depressed in the long-term.2
Those suffering from hearing loss could potentially feel like an outsider in their own family, watching on, rather than feeling a part of things. In contrast, environmental noise can also have a detrimental impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of people with good hearing:
“Environmental noise is a pervasive pollutant that is one of the greatest environmental threats to mental, physiological and psychological well-being and has a significant global health burden associated with it.”3
Living with noise pollution can result in stress, anxiety, depression and even impact a child’s cognitive development. The good news is that in recent years there has been an increased focus on researching the role of hearing and mental health. For example, today we are more aware than ever of the correlation between hearing disorders and the progression of dementia as well as the positive impact of early intervention.4
What is the impact of untreated hearing loss on mental health?
Untreated or poorly treated hearing loss can lead to serious negative consequences for the patient:
- Those with untreated hearing loss may avoid social situations because they can’t cope with complex sound environments. This can become a source of anxiety and worry about mishearing and misunderstandings. The person can feel socially excluded and lonely.
- Losing your ability to hear represents a serious loss. As with any loss, there is a grieving period and the associated feelings of anger, resentment and sorrow can lead to depression.
When we lose some or all of our hearing, the hearing nerve and auditory pathway system deteriorates. This reorganised brain functionality has been linked to accelerated cognitive decline, affecting our brain’s ability to remember, learn, concentrate and to make decisions.5
We also know there’s a strong link between hearing loss, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. People with mild hearing loss are two times as likely to develop dementia, and this increases to three times for people with moderate hearing loss.4
Strategies for coping with hearing loss
Loss of hearing doesn’t have to define a person or prevent them from living a full and happy life. Hearing loss can now be effectively treated and managed in ways that were not possible even just a few years ago; huge strides are being made in diagnosis and treatment options.
As with almost everything, early intervention is key - hearing loss left untreated can worsen. Sadly, there is still stigma around the use of hearing aids and consequently many people postpone getting help because of this. A 2020 study by the National Council of Aging6 found that the use of hearing aids reduced the risk of psychological distress resulting from hearing loss, so it’s vital we try and change these negative perceptions.
There are many ways to help a person suffering with hearing loss to feel empowered and proactive about their personal limitations and options. Depending upon the type of hearing loss, treatments can include:
- Assistive listening devices
- Hearing aids or systems
- Auditory training
Increasingly, hearing therapists are working alongside doctors and audiologists to help people navigate the issues that living with hearing loss can present. Counselling is also recommended to help those dealing with the grief of hearing loss to develop healthy coping skills and strategies.
Hearing loss education and support
Early intervention is key when it comes to both diagnosing hearing loss and identifying mental health issues. A loss of hearing doesn’t have to define a person. Therapeutic intervention, combined with support for the patient’s mental health and wellbeing can enable them to live a full and happy life.
If someone is dealing with hearing issues, it’s important that they feel they aren’t alone. There are many organisations dedicated to advancing hearing loss education and awareness through knowledge and support. Here are a few we recommend:
1United Nations, UN News. (2022) Over one billion people at risk of hearing loss: WHO. Accessed at: https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/03/1113182
2Bess F, Hornsby B. National Library of Medicine. (2017) Commentary: Listening Can Be Exhausting—Fatigue in Children and Adults With Hearing Loss. Accessed at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5603232/
3Liu CM, Lee CT. Association of Hearing Loss With Dementia. JAMA Netw Open. 2019 Jul 3;2(7):e198112. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.8112. PMID: 31365110; PMCID: PMC6669778.
4Robin T. Bigelow, MD. (2020) Association of Hearing Loss With Psychological Distress and Utilization of Mental Health Services Among Adults in the United States. JAMA Netw Open. Accessed at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2768374
5SCIE. (2020) Dementia and sensory loss: hearing loss. Accessed at: https://www.scie.org.uk/dementia/living-with-dementia/sensory-loss/hearing-loss.asp
6National Council of Aging. (2021) Can Hearing Loss Affect Mental Health in Older Adults?. Accessed at: https://www.ncoa.org/article/can-hearing-loss-affect-mental-health-in-older-adults
Narozny W, Tretiakow D, Skorek A. National Library of Medicine. (Jun 2021) Tinnitus in COVID-19 Pandemic. Ear Nose Throat J. 2021 Jun;100(3_suppl):197S-198S. doi: 10.1177/0145561320988364. Epub 2021 Jan 20. PMID: 33470830. Accessed at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33470830/
Morgan-Jones RA. (2001) Hearing Differently: The Impact of Hearing Impairment on Family Life. London and Philadelphia: Whurr Publishers, 2001
Evans M, Fisher EB. National Library of Medicine. (Jan 2022) Social Isolation and Mental Health: The Role of Nondirective and Directive Social Support. Community Ment Health J. 2022 Jan;58(1):20-40. doi: 10.1007/s10597-021-00787-9. Epub 2021 Mar 3. PMID: 33660137. Accessed at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33660137/
Robb CE, de Jager CA, Ahmadi-Abhari S, Giannakopoulou P, Udeh-Momoh C, McKeand J, Price G, Car J, Majeed A, Ward H, Middleton L. Front Psychiatry. (Sept 2020) Associations of Social Isolation with Anxiety and Depression During the Early COVID-19 Pandemic: A Survey of Older Adults in London, UK. 2020 Sep 17;11:591120. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.591120. PMID: 33132942; PMCID: PMC7566017. Accessed at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.591120/full
Tai SY, Shen CT, Wang LF, Chien CY. BMC Neurol. (Feb 2021) Association of sudden sensorineural hearing loss with dementia: a nationwide cohort study. 2021 Feb 25;21(1):88. doi: 10.1186/s12883-021-02106-x. PMID: 33627087; PMCID: PMC7904508. Accessed at: https://bmcneurol.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12883-021-02106-x
Loughrey DG, Kelly ME, Kelley GA, Brennan S, Lawlor BA. JAMA Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. Association of Age-Related Hearing Loss With Cognitive Function, Cognitive Impairment, and Dementia: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. 2018 Feb 1;144(2):115-126. doi: 10.1001/jamaoto.2017.2513. 2018 Feb 1;144(2):176. PMID: 29222544; PMCID: PMC5824986. Accessed at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaotolaryngology/fullarticle/2665726
Lin FR, Metter EJ, O'Brien RJ, Resnick SM, Zonderman AB, Ferrucci L. JAMA Neurology. (Feb 2011) Hearing loss and incident dementia. Arch Neurol. 2011 Feb;68(2):214-20. doi: 10.1001/archneurol.2010.362. PMID: 21320988; PMCID: PMC3277836. Accessed at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/fullarticle/802291
Thomas W. Weickert. National Library of Medicine. (2014) The Role of Dopamine in Schizophrenia from a Neurobiological and Evolutionary Perspective: Old Fashioned, but Still in Vogue. Accessed at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4032934/
M. Burry. Healthy Hearing. (2020) Understanding auditory deprivation: Why untreated hearing loss is bad for your brain (2020). Assessed at: https://www.healthyhearing.com/report/46306-Hearing-loss-auditory-deprivation
Hearing Link Services. (2022) Hearing loss and counselling. Accessed at: https://www.hearinglink.org/living/adjusting-to-hearing-loss/hearing-loss-and-counselling/